R: Paul Verhoeven. Cast: Virginie Efira, Lambert Wilson, Daphne Patakia, Olivier Rabourdin, Clotilde Courau, Charlotte Rampling, Hervé Pierre. 18,132 minutes.
In Benedetta, master provocateur Paul Verhoeven tears down the boundary between the sacred and the profane. The breast becomes sacred, a source of sustenance from which religious fervor can spring. The Virgin Mary, in turn, inspires not only boundless grace, but also sexual desire. One of the first moments of clarity experienced by young Benedetta – newly enrolled in a Tuscan monastery by her father – is seeing a statue of Mary collapse on her as she prays for guidance. His exposed left breast lands neatly around her mouth. She kisses it with deferential affection.
Devotion comes in many forms, although the Catholic Church wants us to believe that any expression not associated with pain or suffering is blasphemous. Verhoeven and Benedetta themselves would strongly disagree. The film’s standout scene — or at least the one that people have been tweeting about nonstop since it premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival — sees another, smaller statue of Mary carved into a wooden dildo and inserted with delight. No wonder the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property condemned the film as “pornographic filth” and protested its early screenings.
The film is in fact based on the real-life Benedetta Carlini, a 17th-century nun who was imprisoned for her sexual relationship with another sister. A surprising number of details about the case are known to us due to the great interest of a parish clerk who feverishly documented it in his diary. Verhoeven has taken on many of the story’s pivotal events: Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is not only caught red-handed with Sister Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia), but also in a series of bitter power struggles – first with the abbess (Charlotte Rampling), then with the nuncio (Lambert Wilson), a papal envoy. Benedetta had visions of Christ and bears the bloody marks of the stigmata, but speaks her proclamations in words considered too lascivious to be the Word of God.
Is that a sign from above? devilry? Or the very human deeds of a woman whose zeal has turned into ambition? Verhoeven hints at the latter when a piece of broken pottery falls from Benedetta’s robes just after she falls to the ground and blood trickles down her forehead. But, crucially, he doesn’t commit to one answer, and it would be wrong to treat his film as any kind of anti-faith screed, even as it plays his audience with all the spite one might expect from the director would expect from show girls.
Verhoeven, while an atheist, is a bit obsessed with Christ – he co-authored a book about his life and was a member of a scholarly group called the Jesus Seminar. Maybe that’s the reason Benedetta doesn’t fit the nunsploitation genre as well as one might expect, despite its superficial similarities to films like Ken Russell’s The Devils. Sexual liberation is not sought through blasphemy, but through questioning what the nature of worship is. Can you show God your love by showing love between a woman’s legs?
The most interesting point of contention in the whole film is not necessarily what lies between Benedetta and the Church, but between Benedetta and Bartolomea. The latter first appears as the not-so-innocent naïve – the one driven by earthly desires, who farts like a thunderclap in front of her fellow sister and then immediately tries to jump into her bed. It is she who awakens the older and wiser Benedetta to a world of euphoric delights, although it is Benedetta who then seems to take things a little too far. First, by trying to create a direct bridge between her orgasms and heaven itself. There’s a subtle power shift between the two characters that’s beautifully done in Efira and Patakia’s performances, not just in the way these two nuns talk, but in the way they have sex. Benedetta struts around in the guise of something far trashier than it really is – the sex scenes feel more like dizzying exploration than anything truly lurid, and Jeanne Lapoirie’s cinematography remains tastefully muted in its tones. And that’s despite the film showing a segment of a performing fool being chased around by skeletons while lighting his own farts. As Benedetta says, “Shame does not exist under God’s love.”
“Benedetta” is in theaters now and available to stream on Mubi from July 1st
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/reviews/benedetta-review-paul-verhoeven-b2057588.html Benedetta Review: Paul Verhoeven’s Erotic Nun Psychodrama That Should Not Be Treated as Anti-Faith Screed